1) Climate Change
2) Reestablishment of Environmental Bipartisanship
3) Environmental Justice
By Alan Steinberg
On April 22, Earth Day 2022, American environmentalists will join with friends of the earth throughout the world in celebrating the past victories of the environmental movement while dedicating themselves to face the tasks that lie ahead. Regardless of country, we environmentalists share a common agenda of preserving the air, land, and water and the climate of our planet for ourselves and posterity.
Yet we in America have an additional burden to overcome in meeting planetary challenges. We have to reinforce our efforts to remove from the environmental arena all the last vestiges of Trumpism and Donald Trump, the most dangerous opponent of environmentalism ever to lead a Western World nation.
Donald Trump came into office determined to eliminate the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only withdrawing his effort in this regard when he found it was not politically feasible. Trump was anti-science, and therefore a denier of the reality of climate change. He was an inveterate racist in both his private business life and public political life; thus, he refused as president to give any support to the Environmental Justice movement. Finally, he was an authoritarian; thus, he had no tolerance for the opposition Democratic Party.
Thus, on this Earth Day, in removing the toxic legacy of Trumpism from the environmental arena, the agenda of the American environmental movement must have three basic components: climate change, bipartisanship and environmental justice.
We must restore the priority of climate change, using sound science as our guide in all facets of climate control, including, but not limited to, alternative fuels, green buildings, clean power plants and climate resiliency. The right utilization of sound science will enable America to accelerate the pace of environmental protection while maintaining our nation’s economic competitiveness.
In reestablishing bipartisanship as an environmental priority, we must keep in mind two historical factors. First, to a certain extent, prior to the advent of Trump as president, the cause of the environment was always supported by the leadership and rank and file of both political parties. Second, when bipartisanship prevails, environmental advances become more possible. After all, the EPA was established in 1970 by an executive order of a Republican President, Richard Nixon, with the support of a Democratic Congress.
Furthermore, in reestablishing bipartisan cooperation in not only the environmental arena, it is essential to restore norms of respect and cooperation, norms that were cast aside during the Trump years. In their landmark book, How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain how essential such norms are to the very continuance of democracy.
With regard to the environmental justice component, it is first essential to define environmental justice as the effort to combat environmental racism. What follows now is a brief explanation of environmental racism, its nature, quality, and impacts.
Throughout Campaign 2020, there was much debate concerning systemic racism. Racism is systemic when it is embedded in our societal and governmental system, rather than a product of inherently evil white individuals per se.
The most widely discussed manifestations of systemic racism in America today are racist voter suppression and police brutality. Environmental racism, however, is the manifestation of systemic racism which has done the most serious and long-lasting damage to its victims.
Environmental racism can best be defined as the disproportionate environmental harm to people of color resulting from governmental practices, including 1) the carrying out of governmental functions and 2) the permission of government given to private industry to carry out environmental practices that are deleterious to the health of the residents of abutting African-American neighborhoods. Environmental justice refers to policies that have as their objective the elimination of environmental racism.
The most prominent example of environmental racism in the course of governmental projects involves the siting of garbage disposal incinerator projects and municipal landfills near African American neighborhoods, and conversely, the siting of parks and recreational areas near white neighborhoods. This is an all-too common practice in American cities.
The archetypal example of a governmental public servant environmental racist was Robert Moses, the autocrat who dominated New York City in the mid-20th Century. (Full disclosure: I do have a personal animus towards Moses, resulting from his forcing my all-time favorite sports team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles as a result of his obstructing the Dodger plans to build a new stadium for themselves in Brooklyn.)
But the more serious reason for my anathema to Moses was his construction of expressways like the Cross Bronx Expressway, which cut through and destroyed African American neighborhoods in the South Bronx. The health of the remaining African American residents was adversely affected by the noise and deteriorated air quality resulting from the expressway vehicular traffic.
Moses was the quintessential racist urban planner, and his indifference to the welfare of the citizens of color in the path of his expressway bulldozers was replicated by other urban planners throughout America. I always recommend to classes I teach on state and local government the Robert Caro biography of Moses, The Power Broker.
The environmental racism practiced by private businesses abutting African American neighborhoods involves permission of government to both use toxic chemicals in the production process and release pollutants into the air and water. Environmental racism results in fossil-fueled power plants and refineries being disproportionately located in Black neighborhoods, leading to poor air quality and in the present era putting African-Americans at higher risk for the coronavirus.
This environmental harm to our citizens of color from toxics like lead results in damage to their genetic system, impairing not only their mental and intelligence functions but those of their offspring as well. This was conclusively documented by the renowned scientific journalist Harriet Washington in her 2019 landmark book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind.
My service as United States EPA Region 2 Regional Administrator in the administration of George W. Bush heightened my sensitivity to environmental racism. Among my activities in this regard were 1) the reopening of the cleanup of a Superfund toxic waste dump abutting a community of color, a cleanup that had never been properly completed; and 2) the closure of a filthy urban coal-fired plant whose air pollution was causing asthma in children.
On this Earth Day 2022, it is essential to remember the words of Theodore Roosevelt that an America that is not good for all of us is not good for any of us.
Environmental justice, in many ways the New Frontier of the environmental movement, can achieve the ultimate goal of betterment of societal health and safety in a more just society. My hope and prayer is that on every Earth Day henceforth and forevermore, America continues to advance to this objective.
Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.